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The role libraries plan in economic development

Some cite the role libraries play in the economy as a reason for expansion/renovation projects

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September 23, 2022

NORTHEAST WISCONSIN – The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a library as “a place in which literary, musical, artistic or reference materials are kept for use, but not for sale.”

However, these days – especially within Northeast Wisconsin – that definition doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what libraries have to offer.

And while, the economy may be the last thing that comes to mind when many think of libraries, they can actually play a critical role in economic development, which at times can even spark expansions in facilities and offerings.

SMITHworks studio space
One of those sparked expansions is the SMITHworks Community Studio that opened at the Elisha D. Smith Public Library in Menasha in April of this year.

Library Director Brian Kopetsky said the studio space offers a variety of different outlets and tools for learning and creating, such as Adobe Cloud software, a green screen and a 3D printer.

But Kopetsky said SMITHworks is much more than just a studio space.

“What we’re trying to do is create a learning ecosystem built around hands-on learning,” he said. “SMITHworks is where a lot of that takes place.”

For those in the business realm, such as small business owners or people interested in taking business classes, Kopetsky said the studio space has been a big help.

“We’ve got one person in particular who’s using the space to design new products,” he said. “We’ve got another person that comes in, and she’s been mostly focused on utilizing Adobe cloud to develop marketing materials for her business. And some people are just building some of their skill sets, so they can learn what they need to know.”

Brian Kopetsky is the director of the Elisha D. Smith Public Library in Menasha. Submitted Photo

Kopetsky said the library also offers free courses from Gale Courses and Udemy for those who wish to learn a new skill or subject online.

He said Gale Courses, which offers six-week, deep-dive classes with an instructor, span a wide variety of topics, such as how to start a small business, marketing and how to do QuickBooks. 

Udemy, on the other hand, Kopetsky said focuses on teaching specifics within a program.

“For instance, if you’re doing Photoshop, (the class) might be how to utilize layers,” he said. “So it’s quicker usually; just a couple of hours to work your way through it.”

Kopetsky said databases are also available at the library, which specifically allows community members to look up market research, such as ABC databases.

On top of the resources offered within SMITHworks studio space, Kopetsky said the library offers free Wi-Fi, computer access and the expertise from the staff.

Meeting spaces are also available for people to use for conference calls, telecommuting and other modes of communication.
“We’re more of a learning institution,” he said. “We’ll get you started, and we’ll help you along, but it has to be kind of self-driven.”

Similar resources available 
Colleen Rortvedt, the executive director at the Appleton Public Library (APL), said the library, located at 225 N. Oneida St., is in the middle of a total renovation, with a target opening date in early 2024 – aimed at becoming an even better resource to the community.

“While the building itself is outdated, there’s a lot of people who feel a connection to that building, because it has been very helpful for them over the years,” Rortvedt said. “And in the end, really, the building itself is a tool that the staff and the community use to accomplish what they need.”

And while the work has forced the library to temporarily set up shop in the former Best Buy store, 2411 S Kensington Dr., Rortvedt said it will be worth it.
She said the renovation will be “completely transformative,” and the front part of the expansion will allow for more gathering space – a needed change for the library.

Looking through a business lens, Rortvedt said the library had conference and meeting rooms available before the renovation, however with the in-progress revamp, commercial meeting spaces will also be available through a fee structure. 

APL will also offer extended hours for those meeting spaces, which Rortvedt said is a huge plus.

“The location of our gathering spaces are going to be off the front now,” she said. “…for the business community, I think not having early morning hours was a real limiter for us here – at least I know a lot of business events would start at 7:30 (a.m.)… so we’re looking forward to being able to help people in those situations.”

Similar to Elisha D. Smith, Rortvedt said APL also has a collection of business resources, including databases, instruction on business research practices and an initiative that supports a cohort of small business entrepreneurs, which is funded by the American Library Association.

“And in the space itself, we are developing a co-working area that will have access to some networking space – a space where you could have a Zoom call in a more professional-looking environment, in addition to having larger gathering spaces for more elaborate or complex things,” she said. “We will have video conferencing built into many of these spaces as well.”

Overall, Rortvedt said the redesign will benefit everyone in the community.

“Library buildings themselves are really great neighborhood anchors,” she said. “It creates a nice environment; creates a great companion with other business entities. But I just really stress that the mission of the library isn’t really changing. It’s the same mission as always; it just looks different.”

A space to start
Sarah Sugden, the executive director for the Brown County Public Library (BCPL) said libraries have always stood as a way to support people’s dreams – a principle that remains concrete.

“As our society continues to change in terms of the formats we use to share and receive information, libraries continue to change,” she said. “I love (that we are) able to shift formats to access and make connections for people who want to learn that way. So, if you want to learn to take an online class about how to use QuickBooks, you can do that with your library card. You can also check out a book you want… we all learn differently.”

Sugden said the library’s support is meant to reach everyone, including businesses and budding entrepreneurs.

In fact, she said she often thinks of one particular patron who was able to reach his entrepreneurial goals with the help of the library.

“One of the stand-out patron memories I have is (of) this guy who (came) in with a dream; he was this entrepreneur with this great idea,” she said. “He used the library as his temporary office space for about nine months. He used the Wi-Fi, he used the printer, he copied and scanned things… And then he was successful enough that we didn’t see him anymore. He was able to get what he needed.”

When it comes to larger businesses, Sugden said BCPL offers a 300-seat auditorium space at the central branch.

She also said the library is always looking for ways to do even more with businesses and partnerships.

Sarah Sugden is the executive director for the Brown County Public Library. Submitted Photo

“(We’ve had) conversations with some of our local partners in workforce development and economic developments (saying), ‘Okay, how do we… activate those spaces again to support people connecting with those opportunities.”

New developments
When it comes to new buildings, BCPL is on a similar path as APL – with a multi-million, multi-phased proposed project that would bring improvements to the East, Central, Pulaski and Denmark branches.

“All over the country, there’s research and studies of the impact of public library projects; building these public institutions for development,” Sugden said. “They’re forever buildings – they’re permanent – and so they’re really desirable from a development perspective.”

She said the proposed developments for a long-anticipated new East branch, which will be located at the old Titletown Fitness building at 2253 Main St., are expected to be finished later in 2023.

“As we’re looking at making investments in our public buildings, part of that strategy is (around) what draws people to this region,” she said. “Whether it’s businesses, potential employees or just people who are looking for a great reason to raise their family or live their lives. (It’s important) how those public spaces look, feel and serve the community and are important in making this the kind of place that we want to bring in people.”

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